I’ve come to an Islington hotel to interview Troye Sivan. Strictly speaking, he’s beaten me to it. The 20-year-old from Perth, Australia has spent the past eight years posting videos of him singing on YouTube, and since 2012 has been “vlogging” too, talking about everything from leg waxing to condom use to the 3.7 million subscribers to his channel. I could just use this space to print a link to a video of his called “The Whole Story” (469,000 views in two days this week) and save myself a lot of typing.
But this year, Sivan belatedly stepped into the real world. Even in 2015, launching a pop career involves switching off the webcam, playing live concerts and talking to traditional media, who traditionally don’t understand the cultural clout of the YouTubing community. He’s finding this much more nerve-wracking. “I’m about to play the biggest show I’ve ever played – I think it’s 1,100 people,” he tells me just before he heads over the road to sing at the Islington Academy. “That feels like a lot, I’m nervous. But in YouTube terms, if I got 1,100 views on a video I wouldn’t be too happy.”
In the flesh he’s big-eyed and tiny-bodied, in a white sweater and skinny ripped jeans, with his fingernails painted white and pale green. He’s so adorably puppyish that, like the horde of teenage girls already huddled on the floor outside the gig venue, I just want to put him in a box filled with newspaper, take him home and teach him to wee in the garden. He’s such a ceaseless online presence that it’s easy to feel like you know him before actually meeting him. “I don’t really remember not having the internet,” he says. “It’s just always been there and always been a part of my life. It was always natural to me to share.”
“I share everything with the internet,” he said in his most popular talking clip, entitled “Coming Out” in August 2013. Over six million people so far have seem him announcing that he is gay in charming, confident style. However, he says that he broke the news to his family three years earlier. There are boundaries to what he puts online, even when it appears there are not. “At the end of the day it’s me who’s posting, so I’m in control of how much I share. I definitely have a personal life. No matter how much you paid me, I’d never let a camera crew into my house to film a reality show. But I’ll tweet a million times a day.”
He signed his record deal with EMI thanks to a YouTube video, of course. After years of covering the likes of Outkast and John Lennon (unlike some stars, almost all of his early work is still on the web, high child’s voice, shaggy hair and all) he uploaded his first original song: The Fault in Our Stars. It was inspired by John Green’s bestselling book of the same name, and was a ballad accompanied by an emotional clip filmed in his local children’s cancer ward. The shock is that this, and the songs that grace this month’s debut album, Blue Neighbourhood, are great. He’s got the looks and the pre-existing fanbase to be flogging keyrings and will-this-do boyband pap. Instead he’s making ice-cool electronic pop inspired by Lorde and The Weeknd – soulful, slow-moving songs that he delivers in a sweet voice with raw feeling.
“I was really wary that this is a fairly easy sell even if I couldn’t sing or write or play live,” he says, suspicious that record companies could have tried to capitalise on the perceived fad of vlogging, and forced him to record something quick and basic to sell alongside those Zoella and Tyler Oakley books. “Mainstream media is looking over, thinking, ‘How can we get involved in this whole vlogging phenomenon?’ At first there was just this big landgrab of, ‘Let’s sign as many people as we possibly can,’ and that still might be the mindset a lttle bit, but I think people are starting to figure out the good from the bad within it. EMI didn’t force an EP out of me within three months. It was a year before we put anything out, and another year before the next EP. Now it’s clear to me that we’re all in this for the long haul to make good music.”
Some famous fans have already voiced their support. “WILD IS STUNNING AND AWESOME. (YES CAPS LOCK IS NECESSARY HERE.)” Taylor Swift tweeted about his September single, a top five hit in the UK. “His voice does things to my body,” said Sam Smith. Like Smith, Sivan’s sexuality is now common knowledge in a “so what?” way. The poppiest song on his album is called For Him. Yes, these songs are about boys, and there shouldn’t be anything surprising about that.
“I asked myself what I think I would have needed when I was first starting to realise I was gay. Seeing an artist with a real love interest in their video would have been really encouraging for me,” he says. Accordingly, he’s made a trilogy of videos for three songs on the album, telling the story of a childhood friendship between two young boys that blossoms into a sweet teenage romance, which is then shattered by a physically abusive father and one boy’s repression of his feelings. Sivan, a child actor who was a young Hugh Jackman in the 2009 film X-Men Origins: Wolverine, plays the other boy. “I don’t want it to seem like I’m playing it up. I just wanted to show a loving relationship between two boys.”
The music videos have earned even higher viewing figures than his coming out clip, but it doesn’t sound like he’ll stop sharing at this point. “It’s really hard to get lonely when I can log on and speak to millions of people,” he says. “But I definitely recognise that it’s not for everyone. For example, I completely respect and admire Adele and don’t think she needs to be online more to stay relevant. Everyone should do what feels natural to them.”
For Sivan, it feels completely natural to be having an ongoing public conversation with the millions he simply addresses as “You guys” and constantly reassures that they feel like his real friends. His online world is remarkable but real life isn’t looking so shabby now either.
Blue Neighbourhood is out now on Polydor.